Officials show MPs that the ballot boxes are empty ahead of Tuesday's no-confidence vote in parliament, which was done the old-fashioned way.  Picture:  Ruvan Boshoff
Officials show MPs that the ballot boxes are empty ahead of Tuesday's no-confidence vote in parliament, which was done the old-fashioned way. Picture: Ruvan Boshoff

South Africa was swept by waves of shock and anticipation this week. First up was the question of whether National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete would allow a secret vote for the motion of no confidence in President Jacob Zuma.

After her unexpected announcement on Monday that the ballot would be a secret one, the country waited with bated breath to see how ANC MPs would vote on Tuesday.

While this was unfolding, I was in shock for other reasons - the main one being that our own parliament does not have an electronic system that can record anonymous votes.

Instead of waiting for hours as each MP casts their vote, the whole process could have been completed in minutes - freeing up time that our leaders need to be using to address key issues in the country.

I see little reason for not using electronic voting systems, especially in a small setting such as parliament, where fewer than 400 people were involved. Although there is already an electronic system in the National Assembly, it doesn't allow for secret votes to be cast.

We talk about being open to innovation and supporting entrepreneurship. Tuesday's vote would have been a great opportunity to have put the spotlight on a start-up with the potential to roll out a system that could tally votes electronically, without identifying the voters, thus revolutionising South Africa's election system.

Mbete's announcement on a secret ballot perhaps gave too little time to allow a proper electronic system of voting to be set up, but I do hope there will be change soon.

This was a good opportunity, when the whole country was watching, for our officials to model what it means to take a bet on an entrepreneur.

People remain sceptical about supporting entrepreneurs, especially the ones in the technological space. But it is these ventures we need to be supporting if we are serious about being relevant in an increasingly digital world.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw the bell being rung, names being called out, names being crossed off a list, MPs entering a booth to make a mark on a piece of paper which they dropped into a box, and the process being repeated 384 times.

Thereafter we waited for the manual counting process, which is also time-consuming and has its own margins for human error.

Electronic systems save time, improve accuracy and transparency, and have an environmental benefit: the elimination of paper.

I am sure there are all kinds of security concerns about digital voting, but surely we should have systems capable of auditing the algorithm of a voting system that has to capture fewer than 400 votes?

There are downsides to voting electronically - such as losing the drama of actually entering a booth and seeing yourself make your mark on the paper.

This is significant for South Africans, considering our history: we fought for the right to put our crosses on ballot papers.

But in the 21st century, in the year 2017, we really should be more focused on the efficient use of our elected officials' time. There are so many more pertinent issues that need our leaders' attention.

Namibia paved the way in 2014 by being the first African country to use an electronic voting system for national elections. We should seriously consider this option for the national elections. Namibia has a far smaller population than South Africa's, but there are countries that have more voters and a lower national income - and which still managed to introduce electronic voting systems successfully.

We might not be ready for an electronic voting system for general elections, but I see no reason why we cannot start introducing such innovation to parliament. This kind of system has been tested and implemented in a number of parliaments around the world. We should be leading our country in a way that is globally up to date, efficient and relevant. Enabling MPs to cast anonymous votes electronically in a small, contained setting would definitely be a good start.

Sikhakhane is a global speaker and business strategist specialising in leadership, entrepreneurship and doing business in Africa, with an MBA from Stanford University. zipho@ziphosikhakhane.com

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